Lively Discussions: The Move Toward Harmonized Corporate ESG / Sustainability Reporting

September 22 2020

by Hank Boerner – Chair & Chief Strategist – G&A Institute

There are lively discussions going on, centered on improving publicly-traded company disclosure and reporting – and especially ESG reporting…that is, storytelling about the company’s “non-financials” (in accounting-speak).  And the story of the corporate sustainability story for those-in-the-know!

The proliferation of ESG / sustainability reporting frameworks, standards, information platforms, industry guidance, stock exchange guidance and much more has been astounding in recent years.

We think of all this as about the organizing of the storytelling about a company’s sustainability journey and what the enterprise has accomplished. 

And why the story matters to society…to investors, employees, customers, suppliers, communities…and other stakeholders.

And it has a been a long journey to the state of today’s expanding corporate ESG disclosure.

The start of mandating of periodic financial and business mandated disclosure goes back to the 1930s with passage of landmark federal legislation & adopted implementation (compliance) rules for publicly-traded companies in the United States.

Corporate financial disclosure in concept is all about providing shareholders (and potential investors) with the information they need to make buy-sell-hold decisions.

The sturdy foundations of mandated corporate disclosure in the U.S. are the laws passed after the 1929 stock market crash – the 1933 Securities Act and 1934 Exchange Act.  These laws and the bodies of rules deriving from them have been constantly updated over the years, including with Sarbanes Oxley legislation in 2002 and Dodd Frank in 2010. These mandate or guide and otherwise provide the rules-of-the-road for financial disclosure for company managements.

Disclosure has steadily moved well beyond the numbers – Sarbanes-Oxley updated the 1930’s laws and addressed many aspects of corporate governance, for example.

Voluntary Disclosure & Reporting – ESG Issues & Topics
Over the past 40 years, beyond the financials, corporate voluntary non-financial disclosure has been steadily increasing, as investors first embraced “socially responsible investing” and moved on to sustainable & responsible & impact investing in the 21st Century.

Asset owner and asset manager (internal and external) requests for ESG information from publicly-traded companies in portfolio has steadily expanded in the depth and breadth of topic and issue areas that institutional investors are focused on – and that companies now address in significantly-expanded ESG disclosures.

Today, investor interest in ESG / sustainability and related topics areas is widespread throughout asset classes – for equities, equity-focused products such as imutual funds and ETFs, fixed-income instruments, and now credit risk, options and futures, fixed assets (such as real estate), and more.

With today’s dramatic increase in corporate sustainability & ESG reporting, the maturation of reporting frameworks and standards to help address the internal need for better organizing non-financial data and information and accompanying ESG financial disclosure.

And all of this in the context of trying to meet investor demands.  Today with expanded ESG disclosure, corporate executives find that while there are more resources available to the company, there is also more confusion in the disclosure process.   Investors agree.

Common Complaints:  Lack of Comparability, Confusion, Demand for Change
The result of increasing demand by a widening range of investors for accurate, detailed corporate ESG information and the related proliferation of reporting frameworks and standards can and has resulted in confusion among investors, stakeholders and companies as to what is important and material and what is frill.

This especially as corporate managements embrace various elements of the available frameworks and standards and industry guidance and ESG ratings for their still-voluntary ESG reporting.

So where do we go from here?  In our selection of Top Stories for you, we bring you news from important players in the ESG reporting process as they attempt to move in the direction of more uniform, comprehensive, meaningful and decision-ready corporate ESG reporting. That investors can rely on.

The news for you is coming from GRI, SASB, GSSB, IIRC, CDSB, and CDP (among others) – all working to get on the same page.

The aim: to benefit corporate reporters – and the users of the reports, especially capital market players.

Because in the end, ESG excellence is all about winning in the competition for access to capital. Accurate, timely, comprehensive comparable ESG information is key!

Top Stories

GRI Linkage Document For EU Sustainability Mandate Released! Linkage Documents Can Help Cure Some “Survey Fatigue”

By Louis D Coppola @ G&A Institute..

Do you have “survey fatigue” from all the various sustainability reporting frameworks?  Well.. GRI Linkage Documents may be the answer to your prayers.

A while back you may have read my earlier blog posts as we were monitoring the developments of the new EU directive for Non-Financial and Diversity Disclosure.  As most of you know by now the Directive entered into force in December 2014.  The directive will impact over 6,000 large public enterprises that operate in the European Union and mandate them to report on certain sustainability matters.

You can read some frequently asked questions about the directive here.

https   www.globalreporting.org resourcelibrary GRI_G4_EU Directive_Linkage.pdf

The good news today is that GRI has released a “linkage document” which links the GRI G4 indicators to the specific requirements of the EU directive.  This document is the latest addition of these very useful linkage documents created by GRI.

For those of you who are worrying about “survey fatigue” or the growing number of sustainability reporting / data collection organizations that you must reply to – you should be aware of these linkage documents.  In a nutshell these linkage documents allow a GRI reporter to utilize their GRI report and content index to disclose to several major important reporting organizations with only one report.

The linkage documents currently include guidance for using GRI reports as one stop report to respond to several important reporting organizations / frameworks like ISO 26000, Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), United Nations Global Compact (UNGC), IFC Sustainability Performance Standards, The Earth Charter, and now the new EU Directive for Non-Financial and Diversity Disclosure.

Imagine that! – You can use your GRI report to help respond to all of these important sustainability groups at once.  Another reason why you should be reporting using the GRI framework.  The globally recognized (over 6,000 companies utilizing GRI) de-facto standardized format of disclosure that you have when reporting using the GRI framework allows for these types of alignment / synchronization, and can help you to answer more important stakeholders information requests, with less time invested, more accuracy and more efficiency.

As an example of how this would work take a look at the GRI Content index for ArcellorMittal where they use one index for UNGC and GRI here.

Another example is GAP where they have combined GRI, UNGC, and CDP into one GRI index here.

You can see all the GRI linkage documents listed here.

You can access the announcement and the new EU linkage document here.

If you have any questions please contact me (lcoppola AT ga-institute.com) and let me know – about this or any other sustainability topics.  Think of G&A Institute as your sustainability think tank.  Over the past ten years we have designed research, systems and services to help you get more out of your sustainability efforts, and I would be very excited to tell you more about how we can help.